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Film / Mädchen in Uniform

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”What you call sin, Headmistress, is what I call the spirit of love. It takes on a thousand forms.”
Fräulein von Bernburg

Mädchen in Uniform is a classic of German cinema from 1931, directed by Leontine Sagan. It's based on the play Gestern und Heute (Yesterday and Today) by Christa Winsloe and it also became one of the first movies to explore the subjects of lesbian romance and Teacher/Student Romance. It had an all-female cast and was ground-breaking not only for its portrayal of said lesbian and pedagogical eros, but also for its co-operative and profit-sharing financial arrangements (despite the fact that the profits had been mostly retained by producers).

Manuela von Meinhardis, a new student at a Prussian boarding school, is sent to a dorm run by Fräulein von Bernburg, a teacher on whom all the girls in the school have a crush. Manuela goes a little further than most, actually falling in love with von Bernburg, which seriously jeopardizes their lives at the school.

A remake was made in 1958, starring Lilli Palmer and Romy Schneider.

This film contains examples of:

  • Age-Gap Romance: If one interprets Manuela's feelings are requited. She's 14 and her love is at least ten years her senior.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Fräulein von Bernburg's feelings for Manuela are left ambiguous, but are heavily implied.
    • Student Mia von Wollin keeps photos of German actress Henny Porten on her locker and reacts with wry amusement at another girl's love letter to her.
    • Ilse von Westhagen tells Manuela that the headmistress commented on Manuela's "pretty" legs.
    • Another student is simply stroking Manuela's long, stocking-clad leg as the kids are getting ready for their play, backstage.
    • Several pairs of girls are dancing together at the party after the play.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Most of the girls in the school. While some show interest in men, keeping photos of German actors and models in their lockers, they all fawn over Fräulein von Bernburg.
  • And That's Terrible: The narration is sometimes heavy-handed and breaks the Show, Don't Tell rule when trying to bring a point across. Prime example is the closing line from Frl. von Bernburg:
    "The girls have prevented a tragedy...which we both would have regretted all of our lives."
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: About halfway through Manuela makes a tearful declaration in which she declares that she loves von Bernburg and can't stand the thought that she'll leave the school one day and von Bernburg will kiss other girls. Von Bernburg tells her to suck it up.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film ends on an ambiguous but bittersweet note. Manuela undergoes a Humiliation Conga and is banned from speaking to Fräulein von Bernburg. Fräulein von Bernburg herself is being kicked out of the school when she speaks to Manuela against the headmistresses wishes, though she states she would leave voluntarily nevertheless. The only thing stopping it from being a Downer Ending is that Manuela didn't succeed in killing herself.
  • Boarding School of Horrors: The school is basically a prison, where the girls wear striped uniforms, their possessions are confiscated, their mail is censored, and they're malnourished.
  • Chromosome Casting: The cast is 100% female. The only male presence on screen is a hearthrob actor whom one of the girls keeps photos of pinned to the inside of her locker.
  • Description Cut: When the headmistress praises starvation and Prussian order as the ultimate force to improve her students, the scene cuts away to three schoolgirls discussing their favorite food.
  • Driven to Suicide: Manuela tries to jump from the main staircase of her boarding school after she is banned from talking to her teacher.
  • Even the Girls Want Her: Due to the limited selection at an One-Gender School, many of the girls are head-over-heels for their teacher, Fräulein von Bernburg.
  • Fired Teacher: Fräulein von Bernburg at the end.
  • Foreshadowing: An entire scene has some of the girls noting that the stairwell of the building is very deep and a long drop. Guess how Manuela tries to kill herself at the end?
  • Gayngst-Induced Suicide: Subverted in the film, with Manuela's classmates preventing her suicide. The original stage play, Gestern und heute by Christa Winsloe, ends less happily, thus fitting the trope.
  • Girls Behind Bars: Technically not seen in this film, as the setting is a school and not a prison. But nevertheless the film hits many of the notes of a Girls Behind Bars film. It's an all-female cast in an institutional setting, and an unpleasant setting at that, where the girls are treated harshly and marched around and fed inadequate rations. The girls wear striped Institutional Apparel that strongly resembles prison uniforms. There's a warden/headmistress that gives off strong Butch Lesbian vibes, there are the standard mean guards/teachers, and there's one nice guard/teacher who seems to develop feelings for an inmate/student. Then there are the Lingerie Scenes and the overtly lesbian themes in the film. It basically comes off as a Girls Behind Bars film in Unbuilt Trope form.
  • Glasses Pull: The headmistress pulls her glasses off in a dramatic fashion when she hears from Frl. von Kesten that her students complain about the lack of food at the school. She then answers that she doesn't care.
  • Greeting Gesture Confusion: Between Manuela's aunt and Frl. von Kesten in the opening scene.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: Done by Manuela towards Fräulein von Bernburg and done when she performs in the school play.
  • Institutional Apparel: The striped school uniforms look much like prisoner outfits.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Manuela's classmates find her in time before she can throw herself from the top of the staircase.
  • In Vino Veritas: When fourteen year old Manuela gets drunk, she ends up confessing that her teacher gave her a petticoat in front of her classmates, and unfortunately in front of the headmistress. After sobering up she is punished and banned from speaking to Fräulein von Bernburg again.
  • Match Cut: Opens with a pretty snarky match cut in which a brief shot of marching soldiers cuts to a shot of the schoolgirls, in uniform, marching.
  • Missing Mom: Manuela's missing mother plays a pivotal part in her attraction to her female teacher, in whom she sees a surrogate mother as well as a lover.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The headmistress in the end, walking away in Stunned Silence over the mess she caused.
  • One-Gender School: Set in an all-female Prussian boarding school.
  • Precocious Crush: Fourteen year old Manuela falls for her female teacher.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Frl. von Bernburg, who is very supportive towards her students and is not afraid to speak up against the headmistress.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: The headmistress gives one to Manuela towards the end of the story, though she fires back, verbally eviscerating her for being a Sadist Teacher.
  • Revised Ending: An alternate ending which subtly pandered to pro-Nazi ideals enabled continued screening in German cinemas for some time in 1933 and after, but eventually even this version of the film was banned as 'decadent' by the Nazi regime.
  • Sadist Teacher: The headmistress, who doesn't hesitate to starve her students in order to teach them proper Prussian discipline. Her strict approach bites her in the rear at the end.
  • School Play: Manuela plays the male character in one of these.
  • Situational Sexuality: The enclosed environment of a Prussian all-girls boarding school is asking for this to happen.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: One of the Trope Makers, with Manuela and von Bernburg. Other girls also have a crush on von Bernburg.
  • The Von Trope Family: All of the schoolgirls have a "von" in their surname, indicating an upper-class heritage.